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Samira Kawash Wants to De-Stigmatize Candy

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: Samira Kawash clues us in on the controversial, and delicious, history of candy. 

 Amazon: Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure on Food52  Samira Kawash on Food52

We all know candy is "bad" for you. Despite its sugary goodness, it's a gateway to a mouthful of cavities, hyperactivity, an an impending crash. It's evil -- right? Well, not exactly.

In her new book, Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Samira Kawash de-stigmatizes America's most-loved treat. You may now trick-or-treat with a clear conscience. Read on for the history of mass-market sweets, candy as scapegoat, and why we give out treats at Halloween.   

When did candy become so entrenched in our Halloween celebrations? What do you give your trick or treaters?
Up through the 1950s, Halloween treats were much more miscellaneous. Homemade treats like popcorn balls and cookies were popular, along with nuts, chocolate coins, loose penny candies, and toys.

Candy makers started promoting candy for trick-or-treating in the 1950s and offering treat-sized packaging, but it was in the 1960s that candy really started dominating. It was a lot easier to just pick up a package of pre-portioned treats at the grocery store, for one thing. But Americans were also becoming more suspicious of strangers, and of unwrapped treats and homemade goodies that seemed like they might not be safe. Wrapped and branded candies seemed inherently safer.        

And I feed my trick-or-treaters candy, of course! My 10 year old gets to pick. We don’t go for the obvious big-name choices; kids can get a Snickers or M&Ms any time. This year we’ll be handing out Crabby Patties, cute little gummy sandwiches that are fun to play with and to eat.  

Salted Maple Honeycomb Candy on Food52

What are some of the most shocking things you learned while researching this book?
I was surprised to discover that the shrill accusations of food reformers in the late 1800s against “poison candy” were completely unfounded. Today when people casually talk about the horrors of food adulteration in the days before federal regulation, poison candy is exhibit one. But in fact, candy was just an easy scapegoat for many other ills. Sometimes people hid poisons in candy. But that’s quite another matter.

I also had some jaw-dropping moments when I discovered how closely linked candy and alcohol were in some peoples’ minds in the early twentieth century. Many people actually believed that candy turned into booze in your stomach, and that eating candy could lead to intoxication. The most shocking story I discovered involved an experiment carried out on patients in a Swedish mental hospital in the 1940s. Researchers fed them huge amounts of sticky toffee for years in the hopes that their teeth would rot, thereby proving that candy causes cavities. Many of the patients eventually developed terrible decay. But given the conditions they were subjected to, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions.

More: Don't give out carrot sticks! Be the hit of the block with these homemade Halloween candies

Salted Pumpkin Caramels on Food52

How have changes in what's considered "healthy" affected our candy consumption over the past decades?
A hundred years ago, new ideas about nutrition changed the definitions of “good food.” Scientists had shown that all food was made up of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and that all these nutrients were essential. So any and everything was, by this definition, good food, since it would supply either energy or tissue building nutrients. Candy marketing in the early twentieth century emphasized the “good food” and “quick energy” themes, which encouraged people to see candy as an everyday food stuff instead of an occasional luxury.  

Today, we’re a lot more suspicious about the health effects of refined sugars and certain fats. No one would propose including candy in the “good food” category anymore. But candy consumption is near its historic peak! Not to mention sodas, and all sorts of other sweetened processed foods. So it seems unlikely that ideas about “healthy food” are the only significant factor in how much candy we eat.     

How can we improve our country's relationship with candy without breaking up with the stuff entirely?
I think we are beginning to understand that the problems with the modern diet are not so much about one particular bad food, but about a global food system that has made it easy and cheap to consume excess calories and over-processed nutrient-poor food. Candy is really not the problem.  

My approach is this: Let candy be candy. There are a lot of candy-like foods out there that are trying to fool us with words like fruit and vitamins and fiber and natural. So if you’re going to eat that stuff, it’s important to be honest: it’s candy, not food. That means it’s a treat, not a meal. And it’s not “good for you,” no matter how organic or virtuous or precious it seems to be. That’s ok. Everything doesn’t have to be “good for you.” But I think good eating starts with honesty.   

More: We've got your storebought candy hacks, from Almond Joys to Twix

Homemade Almond Joy on Food52

Candy is popular across the globe, albeit in different ways. Do our candy traditions differ greatly from those of other countries?
We’re actually not the biggest candy consumers in the world; Scandinavia beats us on that score. But what is unique about America’s candy indulgence is the collapse of distinction between candy eating and eating proper. We snack constantly, and much of what we snack on is candy or candy-like. Other countries, even those that consume huge quantities of candy overall, seem to have done a better job of sustaining the idea of proper meals, and having special times and occasions reserved for candy. I think this is a good model for restoring a better balance. Not only to put candy in its place, but also to return to the pleasures of breakfast, lunch and dinner.    

We're giving away 5 copies of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure! To enter, tell us in the comments: What's your preferred Halloween candy? We'll choose winners next Tuesday, October 29 at 3 PM EST. (Unfortunately, we can only ship domestically -- sorry to our overseas friends!)

Caramel and maple candy photos by James Ransom. Almond joy photo by Kristin Rosenau.  

Tags: Lists, Interviews, 5 Questions